Portrait of a Man Unknown has no plot in the traditional sense. It describes the narrator’s search for reality, his attempts to discover the truth about the relationship between an old man and his daughter. Like a detective, he spies on them and even imagines scenes between them at which he is not present.
The narrator’s method of exploration consists of seeing and imagining what Nathalie Sarraute has called “tropisms.” In her introduction to Tropismes (1938; Tropisms, 1963), she defined tropisms as movements, “hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives,” which “slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations.” These movements “hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and able to define.” She called them tropisms “because of their spontaneous, irresistible, instinctive nature, similar to that of the movements made by certain living organisms under the influence of outside stimuli, such as light or heat.”
The novel explores the theme of the “mask,” or false face, which the father puts on every time he sees his daughter. The narrator compares it with the mask worn by Prince Bolkonski in Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) to hide his powerful love for his daughter, Princess Marie. The prince’s mask slipped once on his deathbed when he called Marie “my little friend” or “my little soul”; no one heard exactly what he said. The narrator wonders why the prince would need to hide his love from his daughter, who was perfectly pure and innocent—or was she? The old man’s daughter was probably not perfectly innocent, even as a baby. She seemed like a monster to him as her strident cry and “tentacles” made him “secrete” the mask the first time. Prince Bolkonski and Princess Marie are real characters in a real novel—solid, defined, explained. The narrator wishes that...
(The entire section is 839 words.)